The Best of 2016

In my mind, 2016 is kind of broken into three completely separate parts. From January to April I was at university for the last semester, working at a cafe and hanging out with friends constantly. In May and June I went on an incredible whirlwind trip to eleven countries. In July I moved to Toronto and now I have a grownup job and sit in an office staring wistfully at my world map all day.

However, a surprising number of these 20 highlights happened in the school or the work part of 2016. Be forewarned that this is a very long post.

Going on a camping safari in Tanzania

I think in 80 years, my safari in Tanzania will still be the number one coolest thing I have ever done in my life. Sure, there were tsetse flies and both extreme cold and extreme heat, and a lot of time in a car, but thinking back on my 6 nights camping in the wilds of Africa none of that matters.

I watched thousands upon thousands of wildebeest make their way across the savannah, sitting on top of the Jeep and marvelling at how far I could see. I darted back into my tent in the middle of the night after seeing glowing eyes staring at me from the grass. I woke up to the most incredible sunset straight from my tent, and felt at peace.

Overcoming my fear of water by scuba diving in Zanzibar

Every time I think about the fact that I went scuba diving, I am in awe of my bravery. That may sound dramatic, but until literally last year I held my dad’s hand the whole time we snorkeled and sometimes cried into my mask because I was so irrationally afraid of the water. In Zanzibar, I saw a dive shop, marched myself over to sign up for a one day discovery course and then sat on the beach contemplating how afraid I was. I got in the boat, thought about all the ways I could die, and then threw myself backwards into the Indian Ocean with my heart in my throat.

And it was pure magic.

Taking the Sound of Music bike tour in Salzburg, Austria

Despite the fact that I only spent four days in Austria, three of the things on this list happened here. I think I need to go back to Austria…

Since the moment this tour began, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do it again and take my mom with me. We LOVE the Sound of Music and the only reason that this tour wasn’t perfect is that my mom wasn’t there to experience it with me. My morning of riding out into the Austrian countryside, singing along to Do Re Mi and dancing around filming locations pretending to be Liesl will always be one of my fondest memories.

Hiking Pulpit Rock in Norway

Have I annoyed you all yet by continuing to rave about Pulpit Rock? Yes? Oh well, I’m going to keep doing it. You may notice that five of the items on this list are hikes; 2016 was the year I discovered that I actually do like hiking and now the first thing I do when planning a trip is check whether I can hike there. Anyway, I already wrote a whole post about this hike and I even used the word magical in the title (so dramatic) – here it is.

Hiking Ben Vrackie in Scotland

Another hike you say? Yep…I started my two month trip this summer with this hike, and it couldn’t have been a better kickoff. This random, not very well-known hike in Scotland was absolutely breathtaking and all it made me want to do was hike all over Scotland. My sister did a 10 day Scotland trip in August and did basically all the things I wanted to, and now we are seriously discussing opening a hostel in the Scottish countryside or trekking the West Highland Way together.

Scooting around Cappadocia

Oddly, my hot air balloon ride was not the highlight of my Cappadocia trip. It was incredible, but the day where my American friend Julie and I rented a scooter and drove wherever the wind took us stands out more in my mind. I was lonely in Cappadocia, the sole backpacker in my cave hotel’s dorm and shocked by the sharp downturn in tourism in Turkey.

When Julie arrived in the dorm I literally walked over and said, “Oh my god I’ve been so lonely, will you be my friend?” Somehow that worked, and we spent the rest of our time together. We climbed castles, feasted on Turkish food, got lost, and later went on the weirdest double date of my life with these two creepy Turkish guys. We also spent an amazing night dancing in a local bar, this time with less creepy Turkish guys.

I often say that Turkey is my favourite country, and I am heartbroken for what has been happening  there. It’s a magical place.

Visiting Anne Frank House in Amsterdam

I had a weird obsession with the Holocaust as a child, and I’ve read Anne Frank’s diary a million times and cried every single time. I managed to find a last-minute ticket through sheer luck (if you’re going, try to get one in advance) and on my last rainy day in Amsterdam I went and cried for a few hours. It’s impossible to describe how impactful this place was; they have set up the exhibits and memorials incredibly well and I believe everyone should know the story of this incredibly inspiring girl.

Spending the evening with the orchestra at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna

It’s no coincidence that two of these favourites happened with the same people. I met two girls from Chicago on my Sound of Music Tour (see above) and we traveled to Vienna together. I told them about a free concert by the Vienna Philharmonic happening at the Schonbrunn Palace, we picked up a French boy from their hostel, and off we went for one of the most special nights ever.

After an epic quest to find the only store in Vienna that was open (I think it was a public holiday) we bought a crap-ton of wine, bread, and cheese and made our way to one of the most beautiful palaces in Vienna. Obviously, it was packed, so we made our way to a hill behind the actual orchestra, ignoring signs that said we wouldn’t be able to hear.

The signs were in fact correct, but it didn’t matter. We got tipsy, talked about our favourite international misadventures, chatted to random strangers around us, and I kept having those moments of perfection where I stopped to take it all in.

Near the end of the concert, we decided to leave and avoid the rush. We ended up walking by the orchestra at the perfect time to hear AND see the final flourish – that’s right, there were fireworks.

Amazing.

Hiking Lion Rock in Hong Kong

If you had asked me during this hike if it would ever make it to a highlight list, the answer would be a firm no. This hike was REALLY HARD and I thought I was going to die. I actually hiked to Amah Rock first, which was a waste of time, then up to Lion Rock, and it was so hot. I’m much better at handling cold than heat (thanks Canada) and I have never sweat so much in my entire life. I considered giving up about 7 times but when I made it to the view, it was all worth it.

Hong Kong itself was a highlight, just like I expected it to be – it’s an unbelievably cool city with so much to do and see, and the cute Swedish boy I met certainly didn’t hurt.

Hiking Daimonji Yama in Kyoto

Japanese temples and shrines are gorgeous, but I find when I travel solo, going to these kinds of places means walking through in half an hour and leaving. In Kyoto I felt kind of listless after hitting the major highlights in a day, so I googled ‘hiking in Kyoto’ and found this gem. It was extremely confusing to find because there were no English signs, but if you use these directions you’ll be set.

The hike isn’t too hard, especially compared to some of the others on this list. At the top, there’s a very convenient area to picnic, chat, or read and journal – I did all of the above. I was the only foreigner for most of the time, and tons of Japanese families and groups were there. The atmosphere was great and the view was just incredible.

Hiking Mount Tampa in Brasov, Romania

When I arrived in Brasov, it was raining. When I left three days later, it was still raining. I napped and hung out in the hostel lounge much more than I would care to admit, because I couldn’t motivate myself to get out and do anything.  Luckily, the one time I dragged myself out of bed was great enough to make it to this list.

I booked my hostel (Kismet Dao) solely because a dog lived there, and when I got there I learned that if you walked the dog you got free beer. Um, win-win situation much!? I put on my sneakers and leashed up Zara for what I expected to be a light stroll around town. However, Zara had a mind of her own and since all I knew in Romanian was  thank you and no, controlling her was a challenge. She led me to what appeared to be her favourite path and we ended up climbing a mountain.

Going on a pub crawl in Edinburgh

I loved Edinburgh in general, but one of the highlights was the pub crawl I went on. I may not have thought so the next morning, but the girls I met were so fun and the pub scene so buzzing that the hangover was totally worth it. The hostel employee running the pub crawl was also a riot, with the most Scottish accent ever and the most Scottish beard ever.

Strangely, one of the highlights of the pub crawl did not happen in a pub. I only took one piece of photo ID with me because I didn’t want to lose my passport three days into my trip. At one spot the guy refused to let me in without another piece, which made me sad because the drinking age in Scotland is 18, and I was 20. I look sixteen.

Anyway, I had to run back to the hostel to grab my passport and the walk took me down the most charming little alleyways and streets I’ve ever seen – and the fact that I was already a pint of beer in just made me more pleased with my surroundings. It was strangely lovely and I will never forget how happy I was in that moment!

Visiting Iceland

The only country which is itself a highlight on this list. Iceland was the last destination on my insanely packed 2 month trip so I was worried that I’d be so tired (and maybe even jaded) that it wouldn’t impress me. Not so. Yes, I was exhausted, but Iceland is so COOL. I wrote about the logistics of planning a trip to Iceland already, and still need to sit down and try to remember the details of both tours I took.

But suffice it to say that there is a reason everybody gushes so much about Iceland. The sights are beautiful, the people are beautiful, the prices are horrifying, and you will never forget your time here.

Touring the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg

Totally never thought something in Winnipeg would be on this list. My sister moved to this fairly remote Canadian city for work. I had visited on a layover just to be able to say I’d visited all ten Canadian provinces, but hadn’t explored the city in depth. We found a cheap flight, split the cost and I was off to visit on a packed weekend.

Most of the time was spent snuggling doggies and eating junk food, because dogs and junk food are two of our favourite things, but we also made time for some sightseeing. The only must-see on my list was the Human Rights Museum, which I’ve heard only amazing things about.

It lived up to my expectations: the design, exhibits and educational value of the museum is stunning. I learned a ton. I was very moved to see Malala Yousafzai’s bloody school uniform on display; I have so much admiration for Malala and loved her book.

Wondering at the Austrian National Library in Vienna

I am SO obsessed with libraries. Many of my fondest childhood memories occurred in our local library and I read a lot, so anywhere with books is a draw. When a library is historic and stunning, I can’t resist but to stop by. That’s why in Vienna, my very first stop was the Austrian National Library – I saw it on Instagram and immediately knew I had to go.

Did I wander the library pretending to be a Hapsburg princess? Perhaps. I was totally captivated by the amazing room, the exhibits on Hapsburg royalty, and even the smell of old books. I could have spent hours here.

Spending a solo Thanksgiving at the Stratford Theatre Festival in Ontario

I love plays and solo travel. I couldn’t afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, and it’s never been a huge deal in my family anyway, so I decided to take a weekend trip in my new province. When I realized that I could get youth discounts on tickets to shows at the Stratford Theatre Festival, I was sold!

I stayed in the weirdest hostel ever (it was attached to a hospital and I was the only one staying there) but at least it was cheap. I saw incredible productions of Shakespeare in Love, MacBeth and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!

My emotions were all out of whack in October; the three-month mark was one of the toughest adjustments in moving and starting a new job. Solo travel always centres me, and this quick trip was exactly what I needed.

Pretending to be rich in Muskoka – Ontario’s cottage country

One of my best friends, Nicole, was working at a swanky resort (the JW Marriott) in Muskoka, which is the gorgeous lake country 2-3 hours north of Toronto. I headed up to visit her and see if I could take advantage of the resort facilities without staying there. The answer – yes. During Nicole’s shifts I walked in like I owned the place, plopped myself down by the pool and tried to put on my best snooty rich person face.

It was so relaxing to pretend to be rich for a day, and having my every whim catered to was just delightful. Top it off with the chance to see one of my best friends and the gorgeous surroundings of the resort and it was the recipe for a much-needed escape from the blistering heat of Toronto.

Visiting New York for the fourth time

It never gets old. My friend Emma was in Toronto, so of course we decided to travel a 10 hour bus ride south to NYC and spend like 36 hours there. Because we took Greyhound and Greyhound is the worst company in the history of capitalism, our bus was delayed almost five hours and we were stuck in Scranton, Pennslyvania for EVER. We did make it, though, and once we made it we had a blast.

Our hostel had the comfiest beds known to man and we took in two shows: Fiddler on the Roof and An American in Paris. I literally go to New York just to see Broadway shows…no regrets. It was HOT and EXPENSIVE and TIRING but would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Graduating university!

Somehow, this milestone pales in comparison to all the other amazing things I did in 2016. While during my third year of university I travelled more than I went to school, in my fourth year I think I only left the province twice, and it was all job interview-related. Despite this, I had the most incredible time during my last semester of school.

I worked at an Italian espresso bar, finally falling in love with the community vibe of my small university town. I finally made the close groups of friends I’d been searching for, spending my free time with so many people I absolutely love. Since I was also finally legal drinking age for the whole school year, I took advantage of that a bit as well..and by a bit I mean all the time.

I also barely had to put any time into school because I had completed most of my courses. I may have skipped classes every now and then (or all the time), but by fourth year I had mastered the art of getting good grades while putting in very little work.

I never understood why people say your university years are the best years of your life, but now I get it. I will remember how happy and free I was during my last semester of university forever.

Extending a work trip to Boston

My second week at my new full time job in Toronto, I flew off to Boston for a work trip. I felt very glamorous and everything about it was very exciting to me. I think it’s funny that my superiors, who travel all the time for work, are so jaded about it while the hotel bed is enough to make me clap with glee. I guess that’s what happens when you have a spouse and children to come home to!

Anyway, I wanted to extend the trip for a weekend and managed to get my way. I stayed in a lovely Cambridge Airbnb and powered through the Boston heat to sightsee. A highlight was ordering a cocktail at the Cheesecake Factory and not getting ID’d (I was 20). After my whirlwind weekend I was off to a paid-for Marriott and a packed week of meetings and orientations, which at the time was fun and exciting!

I completely adored Boston, but the highlight here was the fact that my flights were free 🙂

It has been the most incredible year and it has felt like an entire lifetime of experiences. I can’t wait to see what 2017 brings – in the first two months, I already have trips to Boston, London and Colombia booked!

Falling in Love with Edinburgh

I always wonder if I fall in love with certain destinations because they come early in a trip, when I’m fresh and excited, and then feel ‘meh’ about some places I hit on the end of an exhausting journey. But even if the fact that I arrived in Glasgow straight off an international flight from home influenced my opinion for the country, it’s safe to say that Scotland would have blown my mind no matter when I visited. The combination of incredible history, kind people, and gorgeous nature just couldn’t have gone wrong: from arrival to departure, I was totally in love. You will see this from the ridiculous length of this post. I just kept having more good things to say.

My woefully short time in Scotland was split into two: enjoying nature in Pitlochry and exploring history in Edinburgh. After several days of hiking further north, I arrived in Edinburgh ready to see the place where Harry Potter was written and where so many other world events took place. Parts of Edinburgh felt almost too Scottish – I had trouble believing that it could be so accurate to how I had pictured the country before my arrival. When I walked out of the train station the first thing I saw was a kilted man playing the bagpipes, and then a kind teenage girl approached me to help with directions. I was so disoriented by the beauty of where I had emerged that I was literally spinning around trying to figure out what direction the river was in, and I managed to decipher her wonderful accent to make my way to Castle Rock Hostel.

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Every time I told someone in Scotland that I was from Nova Scotia, they happily exclaimed, “New Scotland!!” and proceeded to question me on the details of my Scottish heritage (which, in fact, does not exist. I was happy to let the Scots believe that I could be distantly related to them, because who wouldn’t want to be related to such a welcoming people?) From that girl to the receptionist at my hostel who welcomed me warmly to everyone else I met and asked for help, not a single person was rude. And let’s be real, the accent doesn’t hurt.

In a lot of places I go, there’s a few attractions you ‘have to see’ that I’m just not interested in visiting. When I travel alone, I can pack an amazing amount into a short trip and usually see everything I want to even if I’m in a city for two days. In Edinburgh, however, I spent every breakfast narrowing down my list of things to do for the day, and I got on the train to England wistfully thinking of all the places in Edinburgh I would have loved to experience – Calton Hill, the Royal Botanic Garden, Real Mary King’s Close, and a long list of other historic sites. With that said however, I fell in love all the places I did have time to see – if you’re going to Edinburgh, these places should definitely make your itinerary:

Arthur’s Seat

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Hiking AND a view of the city…what more could you want?! The beginning of the trail up Arthur’s Seat is near the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Scottish Parliament, and the trail is not as difficult as I read in a few places. However, it’s extremely unclear which way you should be walking – I just tried to follow trails that were sloping up and eventually made it to where I thought was the top…some signage would be very nice to have. Also, on the way down, I got disoriented and ended up basically rock climbing, then found myself in a total random area of the city and had to walk all the way back around the hill. Nice job, Bethany. Anyway, the hill itself is gorgeous; when I was there, there were a ton of gorgeous flowers. It’s amazing to have such an amazing piece of nature right in the middle of the city, and the views from the top are worth the walk! You can see so far when it’s not cloudy, and although it was unbelievably windy  I stayed up there as long as I could to admire the panorama.

Cost: Free

Edinburgh Castle

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Honestly this was my least favourite place I went in Edinburgh, but I’m still glad I went – if I hadn’t, I would have felt like I missed an important part of the city. Kind of one of those places you check off the list and  would never revisit. It’s also an extremely expensive attraction (see below), but you  should still go. It’s got great views over the city and does have some really interesting historical information.

I’m basically a child, so my favourite historic sites are the ones where people are dressed up in period costumes and tell you stories about their characters. I have the mind of a 8 year old. The castle has none of that, but I did learn some facts about Scottish history.

Final recommendation: buy a ticket in advance! I got to skip the entire line (arrive before opening time) and wander around in relative solitude – when I was leaving, the hordes of tourists and tour groups were starting to arrive. Avoid at all costs!

Cost: £16.50

Palace of Holyroodhouse

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I went here because it felt kind of obligatory, and it ended up being one of my top favourite historical sites of all time! When I was little I was obsessed with a book series called Royal Diaries, which were fictional diaries written from the point of view of young royal girls. I adored the diary ‘written by’ Mary Queen of Scots, and went through a phase of reading every gruesome detail I could find about her life and death. Mary Queen of Scots lived in the palace, and there was a ton of information about her – it brought me back to that phase and I felt equally fascinated by her! The palace itself was beautiful and I loved walking around listening to my audio tour. At the end, there was also a special exhibition on Queen Elizabeth II’s fashion, and it was really cool to see actual outfits she’s worn and read about the inspiration and details behind her whole fashion persona. I felt like I got to watch her grow up!

The Abbey (really ruins of an abbey) outside of the main palace is also worth the visit; it was empty when I was there and felt like I had stepped back in time. So naturally I pretended I was Mary Queen of Scots walking through her home. I’m so cool.

Cost: £12.00 for adults, £11.00 with student ID

Elephant House

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Now most normal people would not count a random cafe on the same level as a famous castle or palace…but considering my level of obsession with Harry Potter, this was a must-see for me. I actually stumbled upon it one day, having intended to go the next day, and walked in without looking at the name. I quickly realized where I was and sat down to write in my journal, pretending that I was J.K. Rowling. If you’re unaware, the Elephant House is where J.K. Rowling wrote a lot of the Harry Potter books!!! The food was pretty good but the experience was enough for me.

Royal Mile

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You’d be hard pressed to visit Edinburgh and not end up walking down at least part of the Royal Mile. This is the most famous and a very historic street in the centre of Old Town and it’s absolutely gorgeous despite the kajillions of tourists wandering down and trying to whack me in the head with selfie sticks (I say as a fellow tourist…I did, however, ditch my selfie stick last year). One end hosts the Edinburgh Castle and the other has the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Scottish Parliament and Arthur’s Seat – so you’ll probably be here at least a few times! It’s touristy but in a good way – I was absolutely charmed. St. Gile’s Cathedral as well as a few other gorgeous churches also make their homes here.

Cost: free

Pub Crawl

Ah, what a start to my European trip…I mustered the courage to join my hostel’s massive pub crawl; it happens every Thursday and the timing worked out perfectly for me. When I first started travelling solo I never would have gone down to the common area all alone, walked up to a group of girls and asked if I could hang out with them for the night, but now it seems totally normal to me. We got some free cider from the hostel, and I think we hit up 5 or 6 bars that night, from very weird themed ones to super fun Scottish pubs. I ended up hanging out with a group of Canadian girls and we had SO much fun – I still have them all on Snapchat and I ended up hanging out with 2 of them in Paris later on.

Pub crawls are an awesome way to go out in a city if you’re travelling solo and this one was an absolute blast.

Cost: free

National Museum of Scotland

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Shock of shocks: I am becoming a museum person. I popped in here because it was free and I heard the words ‘rooftop terrace’, and had a great time! I headed straight to the terrace to orient myself over Edinburgh, and then figured I may as well check out the actual exhibits. I was really interested to find out more about Scottish history specifically, but I found that section of the museum extremely confusing and had no idea which way I was supposed to be going. I loved the world music exhibit and several other spots really drew my attention. The atrium of the museum is also beautiful!

Cost: free

As you can see, there’s a whole lot of stuff to see in Edinburgh, and this doesn’t even cover what I would have wanted to see. By the way, I stayed in Castle Rock Hostel and adored it – cheap, comfy beds, gorgeous common rooms with different themes, tons of friends to make, and of course the pub crawl! My sister visited Scotland a couple months after me and stayed at Argyle Backpackers. She described it as a nice rambling townhouse with a garden out back. It’s very quiet and a 10 minute walk to the centre of town. Either one will do you well – depends on whether you’re looking for a party vibe or somewhere to chill out!

Edinburgh is really somewhere I could see myself living, and I can’t wait until the day I get to return.

A Guide to Hiking Ben Vrackie in Pitlochry, Scotland

What better way to start a trip than by climbing a mountain? The first stop on my Summer 2016 adventure was in Scotland – I landed in Glasgow and took the train straight to Pitlochry, a town I had chosen basically on the premise that there was a mountain I could climb. I didn’t have time to make it farther into the Highlands, and Pitlochry had the winning combination of small town charm, a short train ride, and the aforementioned mountain.

I used to hate hiking, but travelling opened my eyes to the draw of the natural world. After this trip, where I hiked in Scotland, Norway, Austria, Turkey, Romania, and Iceland, most of the destinations on my must-see list are on the list because of the hiking. A very drastic change, but one that has infinitely improved my travelling experience. This hike took me through hail, extreme wind, rain, and gorgeous sunshine. Through moorlands, past a picture-perfect loch (lake), and finally up to a summit that I couldn’t even believe was real.

If you’re interested in hiking Ben Vrackie (and you should be), know that it’s incredibly easy to do independently. I kind of used the mountain as an alternative to hiking Ben Nevis, since I didn’t have time, and the weather is always questionable for that summit anyway. If you’re staying in Pitlochry, I recommend the one and only hostel – Pitlochry Backpackers – it”s right by the train station and the staff are very friendly. I had the best nap here after a sleepless overnight flight. The hostel can also give you a map to make the hike even clearer.

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It seems like Ben Vrackie is just popular enough that you pass a few hikers to chat with, and there’s someone to take your picture on the summit (#solotravelproblems), but not crowded enough that you ever feel like it’s busy. Almost everyone I met was Scottish and very friendly. The hike starts with a gentle walk through Pitlochry and along the town streets to Moulin, with signs along the way. Once you arrive in Moulin, it’s pretty clear where the trail begins. The first part is a woodland trail, with typically beautiful Scottish trees. You also walk by fields of sheep and they were SO Scottish and adorable.

Then comes the beautiful moors. I loved the Secret Garden as a child, and never really knew what a ‘moor’ was, but was always totally obsessed with going to one. Now I have lived my dream and pretended that I was Mary Lennox discovering the magic of nature.

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After the initial climb comes the most perfect lake ever. Then the actual difficult part came, and it was certainly difficult. Note to self: bring a day pack so you don’t have to hike with a tote bag. My legs were also sore for days.

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Finally, the summit. I could barely breathe from the climb, and also the wind was so strong that I was unsure if my face even EXISTED anymore it was so numb, but it was such an amazing view. I couldn’t stay at the top for longer than a few minutes but the few minutes I spent up there were worth the whole climb.

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This hike certainly isn’t very well known, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon it. It was certainly a highlight of my time in Scotland, and possibly of my whole trip. If you’re in this neck of the woods – head up Ben Vrackie!